Peru (Part II): Cusco, Pisac / Urubamba /Ollantaytambo (Sacred Valley), Salkantay Trek and Machu Picchu
The journey from Arequipa to Cusco was relatively straightforward, especially considering we were using the world class bus service of the company known as “Cruz del Sur”. Their buses are like airplanes in the sense they have an in-flight (or bus that should be) video presentation about safety etc. and they also have stewardess who bring hot meals to you during the journey! Nice.
Cuzco (or Qosqo in Quechua)
Cuzco is one of those magical places that one must visit in their lifetime. It is like visiting a completely different country on its own with its rich history formed from the halcyon days of the Inca period.
Cuzco sits at about 3,400 metres above sea level and was home to the almighty Inca Empire from the 13th to 15th century. Many believe that Cuzco was built in the shape of a puma, which was considered a sacred animal by the Incas.The people of the Inca race are known as Quechua (as is the famous French outdoor clothing label which obviously took its name from this race) and in their language, Cuzco means “centre of the universe”. This is exactly what Cuzco meant to the Inca people – it was the centre of the universe to them and the mountains were the gods.
The Incas started to lose control of Cuzco when the Spanish Royalists (and in particular one Francisco Pizarro) arrived on 23 March 1534. Under Pizarro the Spanish destroyed almost all Inca buildings and places of worship, including temples and palaces. There were several uprisings by the Incas, but they never really regained full control of what was once an almighty Empire. Cuzco was the centre for the Spanish colonization and the main place for the spread of Christianity in the Andean world. Cuzco became very prosperous thanks to agriculture, cattle raising, and mining, as well as its trade with Spain. The Spanish colonists constructed many churches and convents, as well as a cathedral, university and Archbishopric.
We enjoyed 3 days exploring Cuzco and surrounding attractions prior to departing for our pre planned 5 day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. For two days we explored nearly every street in the old part of Cuzco and must say it is a genuinely beautiful place. It is a shame that so much Inca architecture was lost due to the Spanish colonialist activities of the day, but nevertheless it is still a magnificent place, which is only even more enhanced by its fascinating history.
We again CouchSurfed in Cuzco and this time it was with the extremely proud and knowledgeable local Quechua chico, Ronnie Melendez. Ronnie works in the tourist industry so obviously has a very good insight into the history, but we must add that his efforts to impart his detailed knowledge of the city and history on us only made our experience even better! A truly top man and highly recommended to any other friends or couchsurfers who might be passing through Cuzco (some other CSers, Marion and Rebekah from Halifax, Canada, who we met in the Galapagos Islands actually stayed with Ronnie when they reached Cuzco). Also, Ronnie can help you find very good deals on tours which means not having to pay exorbitant prices that are offered by companies with frills!
Cusco, Pisac / Urubamba /Ollantaytambo (Sacred Valley)
Recommended to us by Ronnie, we decided to spend one day visiting the world famous Sacred Valley. It was a decision not to be regretted for our Salkantay Trek (unlike the Inca Trail) does not take you through the town of Ollantaytambo.
You must check out our photos to appreciate this tour as collectively Pisac, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo were all amazing experiences. It is hard to believe how people lived here in their community so long ago and now some 500 years later we are worshipping their former living space and decorated history. The architecture is mind blowing and what is very interesting is how these people traversed this region on foot without difficulty or complaint! Seriously, watching some of the indigenous women do it in “high heels” is truly extraordinary! Anyone for a foot massage?
So the Salkantay Trek is a 5 day hike that is generally pitched as an alternative to the more famous Inca Trail trek. The Salkantay trek is an Inca trail in itself and may become more famous in the future. The Inca Trail must be booked about 6-9 months in advance as spaces are strictly limited to 200 people per day due to the tight regulations imposed by the Peruvian authorities.
The Salkantay involved walking approximately 10 to 20 kilometres per day (generally at the upper band) at high altitude for the first few days and then dropping down after day 2. It was generally a nice walk with only day 2 being a bit of a task, but nothing out of the ordinary for us considering we had completed the Colca Canyon just prior to arriving in Cuzco.
Day 1 was relatively uneventful in terms of any strenuous ascents, with some slight inclines, but on the whole mostly flat terrain to cover by foot. The first night we slept in freezing conditions (around minus 10 to 15) in tents at just over 4,000 metres and we can assure you we were glad we had down sleeping bags!!! The approach to the site and also leaving the next day was absolutely stunning with the landscape being that of two jagged snow capped mountain ranges.
Day 2 was easily the most difficult because the first half of the day is climbing about 600 to 800 metres in the first few hours, which at high altitude gives all us amateurs some problems! Obviously being difficult also made it very rewarding in terms of the vista ahead. The effort to the highest point on the trek was well worth it, so please do check out our photos on our website. After climbing for so long we then descended dramatically to our campsite for the second night. By around 5pm we had reached our place of rest and what a contrast in weather conditions – it was now more like being in a jungle as it was damp and wet.
Day 3 and I awoke not to the best level of health. Having coughed and spluttered all night I was not well and felt like I was going to pass out with even the most minimal effort of walking. I was fortunate enough that after 30 minutes of walking I was able to jump in a minivan, along with 5 other not so well members of our trekking group, and get a ride to the next checkpoint. We all rested, slept and recuperated until the majority arrived later in the afternoon. Deborah definitely enjoyed the day walking and the scenery was very new to her because she had not done the “World’s Most Deadly Road” in Bolivia, which I thought was very similar in terms of the landscape. Night three was tough in the cold, damp tent coughing and spluttering again – it was especially tough hearing everyone party by the camp fire only some 50 metres away – oh well such is life!
Day 4 and I awoke in even worse condition despite my best attempts to drink lots of water and take some mild medication (as that was all that was available). I had to continue on as there was no medical help until we reached Aguas Calientes later that afternoon, which is basically base camp for Machu Picchu! Walking anything from 0-5 metres was a real problem and major effort as I felt like I had no energy and was struggling to breathe – the altitude was also not helping matters. So after a few “hissy fits” and colourful expletives I decided there was no way I could walk the last day to Aguas Calientes…it was the train for us, as Debs had been ever so kind to stay back to help me on to the train for the last leg.
Upon reaching Aguas Calientes I was able to have a shower and rest in a bed, which was a nice luxury after slumming it in cold, damp tents for 4 days! The next day we were going to be getting up early for sunrise at Machu Picchu, so I needed to make sure I was in very good form – sleep I did!
Day 5 we arose at 5am and having got some decent shut eye we were in the bus and off on our way to Machu Picchu!
Feeling improved compared the day before I was in a much more positive frame of mind and ready to tackle what I was expecting to be one of the best experiences of our lives. Deborah was happy as well because I was feeling better.
Well for me the day ended fairly shortly after sunrise because I was completely exhausted from walking, what would normally be no problem, up to the main vantage point. Nevertheless, Fudgie had a magnificent day and completely enjoyed the experience which should be noted by the fact she did not return until 5pm in the afternoon.
Machu Picchu is no doubt awe inspiring and for that reason we decided that after all the effort trekking to get there (ie Aguas Calientes) it would be tragic if I left without seeing it properly under improved health conditions! So….we waited for 3 days until I recovered somewhat to be fit enough to embark on this journey for a second time (not many people get to do Machu Picchu twice in their life!).
So after seeing one doctor and taking his prescribed medication I felt slightly better, but I was still very much so struggling to breathe and also continuing to feel like I had absolutely no energy and could pass out with only the slightest physical exertion. So we were on to another doctor and this time his drugs worked wonders. His diagnosis was that I had contracted a serious respiratory infection which was not helped by the altitude and the associated dampness of the region and the room! There was a drastic improvement in my condition overnight and I think his return visits with the oxygen mask assisted opening my airways and helping me breathe more freely…the repetitive coughing was still there, but the ferocity had subsided somewhat!
So after nearly an extra week in Aguas Calientes, not the most ideal place to be stuck in, we were off and back to Machu Picchu.
Although well known to the local people of the area, Machu Picchu really came to international attention when American historian Hiram Bingham stumbled across it in 1911. Since then it has gone on to become one of the most revered tourist attractions in the world and it would be fair to say the number 1 highlight of South America!
Many archeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built exclusively as an estate for the Inca Emperor called Pachacuti (1438–1472). Machu Picchu was built around 1450 at the very height of the Inca Empire, but never finished, although it is said that the Spanish did not know of this site. Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style with polished stone walls. Its three primary structures are the Intihuatana (Hitching Post of the Sun), the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows. Bingham took many artifacts back to Yale University (under the agreement he had with the authority at the time he was allowed to do this), but to this day Peru are still pursuing their rightful return! It is expected their return will happen in the near future. Lets hope so!
So who knows what this glorious period and people could have become today if the ole Spanish colonists had not destroyed such an important culture, architecture and history?
What a shame! I guess you cannot change the past, but only make sure the same mistakes don’t get repeated in the future.
The Peruvians, albeit some are descendants of Spanish colonialism, are very proud people and especially proud of the once almighty Inca Empire. This pride is clearly evident in the preservation of sites such as Machu Pichu and in the history and stories they continue to tell! Thank you for sharing them with us.
So in closing, Macchu Picchu is everything it is built up to be and genuinely one of those once in a lifetime experiences that you crave and must do! Thank you for being everything we expected and I am glad I got to see you (again)!